Club races to the Worlds in 18 months; the rise of Eileen Burns

Posted on: August 7th, 2018

Eileen Burns Irish cycling

Having only begun training with a coach in late 2015, Eileen Burns was at the Worlds, on the track, representing Ireland the following year. She now faces into her next challenge; the TT at the European Championships in Glasgow on Wednesday morning. Above, riding the Worlds last season (Photo by Sean Rowe, homepage photo by Sharon McFarland)


The rapid rise of Eileen Burns in Irish cycling


When Eileen Burns rolls down the TT start ramp in Glasgow at the European Championships on Wednesday morning she will do so as a seasoned international.

She has already ridden the Commonwealth Games this year, road and track, and has previous ridden the Worlds, road and track.

Her story reads like that of a talented bike rider whose long career is now in its peak years and racking up international caps.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Her’s is a less predictable, more remarkable, tale than that.

Burns’ name was likely the first one on the Northern Ireland team sheet for the Gold Coast back in April.

But the last time the Games were on, four years ago, she hadn’t even taken up racing properly.

Then aged 25 years, she was in the process of falling into cycling late and trying her hand in Ballymena’s club races.

But it didn’t take long for two things to become very clear; she had an exceptional engine and she was a natural in time trials.

“The first year I did open races I won all of the Ulster TT titles; the 10, 25, 50 and 100,” she says; stating the facts when asked about them, but never boastful.

“And then I thought ‘I’ll get a coach’. It was just to see how much better I could get.”


Eileen Burns Irish cycling

Eileen Burns Irish cycling

On her way to the national TT title in Wexford last year. Riding the Rás na mBan test in her national champ’s kit later in 2017 (Photos by Toby Watson and SeanRowe)


In October, 2014, she began training in a structured way under the guidance of a coach.

Since then she has been crowned elite Irish TT champion and has won national titles on the track. Her Ulster titles are many. When pressed on exactly how many she is too modest to say.

In 2016 she rode for Ireland at the World Track Championships in Paris. Last year she was selected to ride the TT at the Europeans in Denmark and at the Worlds in Norway.

And now this year the Commonwealth Games have followed, as well as European selection. Few would bet against her securing Worlds selection again.

It’s a staggering record for a woman who took up cycling so late, has less than three years of “proper” cycling in her legs and also works full time.

“I didn’t get into the cycling until after I was married; it was my husband Jason who got me into it,” she says.

Jason’s sister Louise Fullerton raced and rode Rás na mBan a couple of times on the Ulster team.  And Burns’ father-in-law is also a cyclist. Through those family connections she fell into the sport.

“We got into the routine of going out (training) with them on a Saturday mornings. And it started from there really,” she explains.


Eileen Burns Irish cycling

Eileen Burns Irish cycling

Warming up for the Worlds last year in Bergen. On her way to winning the Tour of Omagh two years ago, photo by Paul Carron.


Burns’ parents have been very supportive of her career but “aren’t into cycling”.

“They only understood the level I rode last year when somebody said they saw me on the TV at the Worlds. So then they were saying ‘you must be doing ok’,” she laughs.

Her family went to Australia to see her in the Commonwealth Games; their making the long journey clearly meaning a great deal to her.

“It was nice, they thought it was great. It was their first time in a velodrome as well. They were proud; to see me in such a big event and on TV during the opening ceremony. Yeah, that was really good actually.”


Real life Vs the cycling bubble

Burns, now aged 29 years, works for the local healthcare trust in Ballymena.

She is a wheelchair occupational therapist; working with children and adults who require specialist wheelchairs. It’s a vocation as much as a job.

A recent promotion in work, while valued by Burns, brought slightly less flexibility for training.

She loves her career. But marrying it with the demands of cycling, especially chasing international selection, brings its pressures.

“It can be tiring. But the mental fatigue is more than the physical fatigue,” she explains of balancing career and bike.

“You give up a lot for cycling; with family and friends. My relatives live about 40 miles from me, so even finding the time to see them is hard.

“But representing you country is a great thing. And people call me an international athlete. It sort of makes me laugh a bit. I think ‘Oh God; am I?’” she laughs.


Eileen Burns Irish cycling

Eileen Burns Irish cycling

On Commonwealth Games action; TT and road race in the colours of Northern Ireland.


While the door was opened to Burns to try out for the international set-up with Olympic track qualification in mind, she came to the difficult decision the challenge was too great.

The qualification process would involve five UCI World Cups all over the world, as far away as South America, during winter.

She felt to do it properly a long break from working would be required. In reality, it would likely involve taking most, or all, of the next two years off. She had to let it go. She says she shed a few tears when the decision crystallised in her mind.

“The job I have is not one that’s easy to come by. Maybe because I started later in sport; I have other commitments now,” she explains of Olympic dreams and reality colliding.

“The elite programme is really geared around the track now and it’s based in Majorca.

“People say you live the dream, and it is great. I was disappointed but I had to be realistic and take all my life into consideration.

“It’s hard. You feel like you’re letting people down. Everyone in Ireland has always been so supportive.

“People even raised money for me to take three months off before the Commonwealths. You know, people have been very good to me.”


Big time international competition

The Olympic dream aside, Burns will still have plenty of big chances to race internationally if she wants in the years ahead.

There will be more national titles to chase and more green jerseys to collect.

Having won the Irish elite TT crown last year, she too silver this year; Kelly Murphy taking gold in Sligo in June.

It was a good ride by Burns; a nationals medal always is. But it wasn’t the result she was looking for.

“I was disappointed, yes,” she says when asked was it hard to lose her title.

“I felt I rode hard on the day. And it just comes down to that one day; Kelly was the best on the day. But you don’t enter those races not to win.

“It is still good to get to go to the Europeans,” she added, believing her nationals ride was important to ensuring her place on the plane to Glasgow.


Eileen Burns Irish cycling

Eileen Burns Irish cycling

Getting the power down and top of the podium at the Dublin Track Cycling International two years ago (Photos by Sean Rowe)


Taking the step up from domestic amateur racing into major international championships in an adjustment not every rider would have the legs, or indeed the head, for.

But Burns, and especially modest rider, seems unfazed. She loves the TT and that  event never changes.

“In the time trial, once you get off the starting ramp you’re on your own,” she says.

“I’ve done big events like the Worlds, the Europeans and the Gold Coast where you have the spectators and the hype of it all.

“And sometimes you have the TV cameras. But I’ve seen it before and so you know what’s coming.

“The great thing about the time trial is that you’re in control. So my warm-up and schedule before the ride is always the same.

“And you reccie the course beforehand. You obviously can’t control things like the weather or mechanicals. But other things you can.”

She said of more concern than the high octane atmosphere and world class competition at the Europeans was the effort she knew would be required.

“It’s the hurt that gets to you,” she laughs. “Sometimes I wake up (long before a big event) and I think ‘oh, it’s going to be that big, big physical effort’.

“And that’s more what you’d worry about rather than the size of the event.

“And then once I come over the line, knowing that you couldn’t have given any more… knowing that basically you’re bust and that you gave your best; then I’m happy.

“People talk about their watts and you hear all the time ‘oh, I was down so many watts, blah, blah’.

“You know; sometimes you just have to hammer it and see how you get on.”